Sainsbury vs AirBnB – The dangers of brand storytelling

Storytelling is a a great way to communicate, especially if you can find a really powerful, emotional story. But just because you have a story like that, does that mean that you should use it? In recent weeks two brands have done some very powerful storytelling, with very different results in my opinion.

This year’s Christmas ad from Sainsbury re-tells the story of the well-known WW1 Christmas truce in 1914, when British and German soldiers met in no-mans’ land to wish each other Merry Christmas and play some football (soccer). The ad itself is very well done, highly emotional and very evocative. But it left a bad taste in my mouth, and apparently in many others. Guardian journalist Ally Fogg summed it up well when he wrote “in making the first world war beautiful to flog groceries the film-makers have disrespected the millions who suffered in the trenches”.

Over-reaction? Quite the opposite. What Fogg points to, and something Sainsbury should have been aware of, is that WW1 is still unresolved emotionally. There has never been any closure, Millions of soldiers on both sides gave their lives in a bloody, atrocius conflict without any idea as to why. It was futile, totally unnecessary and could have been averted. The only outcome of it was a second, even bloodier war. It’s a heartbreaking story, with no real ending, and that’s why Sainsbury should have stayed away from it. It doesn’t matter a bit that they’ve involved the Royal British Legion in the project, or any other. It’s still a story that should not be turned into a Christmas ad for selling groceries – becuase it disrespects all those young men it sets out to portray.

My second example is a film from AirBnB called Wall and Chain. It’s based on a true story about a German man who worked as a border guard when the country was divided. He left the country before it was reunited, but in a sense he brought the Wall with him. A visit to Berlin and the chance encounter with a man who had been a border guard on the East German side helped him come to terms with the past. This also a very well executed film that tells a very powerful and emotional story about another great tragedy. The difference is that the AirBnB film doesn’t make me feel that the film makers have disrespected those affected by that period in German and European history. Quite the opposite. Yet just like Sainsbury’s film the AirBnB one is trying to sell something.

With great power comes great responsibility, Voltaire famously said. This true of storytelling as well. Some stories are just too overwhelming to be used and adapted for commercial purposes, however noble they might seem. I’m not saying that one tragedy is bigger than another. What I am saying is this: A powerful device like storytelling has to be used with caution. Sainsbury crossed the line, AirBnB managed to stay within it. The lesson for all of us working with brands is to be very careful when we want to appropriate larger than life stories.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn in November, 2014

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